Ghosts, Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames, UK – review

“As sad and grey as this rainy day” is how Ibsen described his 1881 masterpiece, and a vast picture window upstage opens on to what can best be described for most of the evening as a greyscape: mountains in the middle distance barely discernible through the gloom, mist and always the rain. Simon Higlett’s set design more or less follows Edvard Munch’s paintings for a staging of the play, which did not constitute a design in themselves but acted as the basis for Max Reinhardt’s 1906 production. Whether Higlett has succeeded in reproducing Reinhardt’s “walls the colour of diseased gums” we may never know for sure.

Stephen Unwin’s farewell production after six years at the Rose is of a work by a playwright who has long preoccupied him. Unwin’s own translation here is firm and clear, as is his production. Patrick Drury’s Pastor Manders, for instance, is devoid of the sanctimoniousness that more usually characterises the minister; his piety is genuine if excessive, his blinkeredness about both Mrs Alving’s past and the wily carpenter Engstrand’s future plans is palpable but not comically so.

Pip Donaghy plays Engstrand as a rascal with a Scots accent rather than a scheming villain, and Kelly Hunter as Mrs Alving – the logical next step in independent women for Ibsen after Nora in A Doll’s House – is not an upright feminist icon, simply someone who knows her own mind and history and acts on that knowledge – though not always, as the play shows, with fortunate results. Mark Quartley’s performance as Osvald, the Alvings’ son, who is slowly succumbing to hereditary syphilis, has finally led me to twig that playing the young painter as callow and highly impassioned is not a flawed decision by an actor, but is in the fabric of Osvald’s character.

It takes a bit of nerve to open a version of Ghosts (a co-production with Unwin’s former company English Touring Theatre that will subsequently be seen around the UK until the end of November) a bare week before Richard Eyre also directs his own adaptation of the play at the Almeida. Unwin, however, has the Ibsen credentials to pull it off, and pull it off he has, albeit with an odd imbalance of timing whereby the first “half” of the three-act drama lasts 85 minutes and the second a mere 25.

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